This is a book that signifies two major things: Firstly, it's the inauguration of a new, Spanish police procedural series set in the northern Spanish town Terra Alta in Catalonia, and secondly, it is Javier Cercas's first attempt at writing a pure crime novel in an endeavor that is deemed highly successful and proves that a truly gifted author can deliver high-quality texts regardless of the genre categorization. Cercas has written both works of fiction and non-fiction in the past, while he has also been actively involved in the study of the novel as an art form in his critically acclaimed The Blind Spot: An Essay on the Novel where he introduces his view on the nature of literature. In this book, Cercas, clearly influenced by Milan Kundera's theories as presented in his classic The Art of the Novel, claims that "The novel is not the genre of answers, but that of questions: writing a novel consists of posing a complex question in order to formulate it in the most complex way possible, not to answer it, or not to answer it in a clear and unequivocal way; it consists of immersing oneself in an enigma to render it insoluble, not to decipher it (unless rendering it insoluble is, precisely, the only way to decipher it)".
This unique perspective on the subject is evident in his own, prior writings and it's impact is also easy to spot in his latest novel Even the Darkest Night. Cercas creates numerous questions and even though some of them find their respective answers, there are others that remain pending, prompting the reader to think and form their own opinion. Besides, as one of the secondary characters in the book states, it's only half of the novel that is written by the author. The other half is completed by the readers. Apart from being a first class police procedural and an enthralling murder mystery, this novel's literary merit is what makes it irresistible to the thirsty crime fiction reader who is tired of the generic titles that overflow today's publishing world and have nothing new to offer, only repeating the formulaic recipes that allegedly guarantee the zestful receiving of the author's work by a large part of the readership. Lately, I find my self to think all too often that the vast majority of the genre's writers tend to adopt a rather lazy approach to storytelling and the final outcome always leaves me feeling dismayed and praying for fresh voices that would add their unique touch to the fiction writing as such. Cerca's latest work offers a new breath of life to a dying category and it should act as an example for all those who aspire to become crime writers in the future. Without retracting anything from the classic form of a typical murder mystery, Cercas is achieving greatness by introducing one of the genre's most engaging protagonists, the cursed Melchor Marín.
Melchor grew up in the mean streets of Barcelona and from a very young age his life went downhill by getting involved in several illegal activities that earned him his first experiences in the judicial system. Raised by a prostitute mother and without a father, Melchor's choices in life were limited and as a teenager, he ended up working for the Colombian cartel. Of course, he was soon arrested and sent for a few years stint in prison. There, he learns to appreciate the value of literature and when he reads Victor Hugo's masterpiece, Les Miserables, in the prison library, he becomes engrossed with the story and the characters, especially the two protagonists, Jean Valjean and his nemesis, Inspector Javert. Melchor identifies with Valjean's feelings of profound solitude and rage against the world, while he also admires Javert's adherence to the letter of the law and his scorn of criminals and crime as a social phenomenon. For Melchor, Javert is a "false bad guy", one of those characters in fiction who appear to be the villains, but a more meticulous reader can discern the qualities that render them decent and deserving respect from the readership.
Melchor arrives at Terra Alta ("high land" in Catalan), or to "the back of beyond" as Melchor's superiors and colleagues often describe the small town, to join the local police force after a disturbing incident that took place back in Barcelona and forced him to abandon his hometown for an unknown stretch of time. In Terra Alta nothing major is ever happening and life runs smoothly for its inhabitants who lead quiet lives with only a few exceptions. Thus, the news of a grisly triple murder that occurred in the area shakes the illusion of safety for the local community once and for all. The case becomes all the more interesting and disturbing when the victims are identified as the Adell couple, one of the most powerful clans in the region, proprietor of countless pieces of real estate around it and is also the owner of the most potent industry in the area, the Gráficas Adell printing company. The victims have been brutally tortured before they were killed and their horribly mutilated bodies make even the most seasoned homicide officers to gasp in front of the grim spectacle.
The deceased patriarch was a controversial figure and soon the investigative team realizes that he was not liked by everyone, and especially not by those closest to him. So his family and trusted partners are the first suspects and they are thoroughly interviewed by Melchor and his best friend, Salom. Each one seems to have more than one thing to hide, but after six weeks of a fruitless inquiry and with no substantial leads to help the investigators to successfully close the case, the investigation is shut down by the top brass. Melchor cannot accept this decision and he is determined to embark in a solo, rogue mission to continue the investigation on his own. This will have dire consequences for him and Cercas doesn't hesitate to put his protagonist in the most challenging of predicaments, and I stop here as I wouldn't want to spoil one of the most shocking plot points in the novel. Melchor's personal limits are relentlessly tested by the Spanish author and his character arc is brilliantly and thoroughly developed in the course of the novel. Even the Darkest Night is as much a crime story as it is the exploration of the meaning of justice and revenge as well a pondering on the potential correlation between them.
Terra Alta is not a location randomly chosen by Cercas, an avid connoisseur of the darkest sides of Spanish history, especially the dark years of the civil war, lasting from 1936 to 1939, that left deep scars in the people who also subsequently had to put up with the cruel dictatorship of General Francisco Franco which lingered for several decades and ended in 1975. The area in which the novel is set is known to the natives for the fierce Battle of the Ebro in 1938, the longest and largest battle of the Spanish civil war. This historical fact has left its distinctive mark on the local community and there are some scenes in the book where elderly residents of Terra Alta still discuss about this grand battle for the lack of anything else worth talking about in the present time. Hence, the historical dimension is inserted in the text and in the final climax of the story plays a major role in the concluding explanation of the murders. It is rare for a crime author to so deftly incorporate the historical element in his text and highlight the importance of an area's past for the community's current self-definition and the formation of its identity.
Furthermore, this is a book filled with literary references, quoting and discussing some of the most significant novels of the nineteenth and twentieth century, citing the works of authors such as Victor Hugo and Albert Camus. There are many lively dialogue parts between Melchor and his wife, the local librarian Olga, where the two characters exchange opinions and share their different perspectives on the themes explored in these books and their interactions stress their greatness and universality. Fans of literary fiction will most certainly appreciate this one and it should be also noted that Even the Darkest Night won the most prestigious Spanish literary award, the Premio Planeta for 2019. Cercas belongs to the rare species of those writers who can excel at any genre and his particular writing style is a bright beacon for the majority of contemporary crime authors in order to see how one can create an enticing story while at the same time caring for the quality of his prose and the plausibility of his characters. I am certain that you will find Melchor to be one of the most enigmatic characters that you've encountered in the world of crime fiction and I can guarantee that you will devour the whole novel in the shortest amount of time as it's literally impossible to put down. Finally, I would like to make a special mention to the translator, Anne McLean, who does a terrific job in conveying the subtle qualities of Cercas's writing style in the English language. Absolutely and wholeheartedly recommended to all!
Terra Alta Investigations #1